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Of Beasts and Both Brains

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There’s a studio in Greensboro, North Carolina where you’ll find paintings of sage elephants, majestic lions, shadowy birds of prey and ancient reptiles. The detailed works show these creatures in their natural form. Every feather accounted for. Every scale and bump rendered. Every detail of the eye and the small light that makes them alive is there. In these paintings, these animals don’t exist in nature – they live apart from it in muted, ethereal places that highlight the raw beauty of the creatures themselves.

They’re the creations of nature. And they’re the creations of artist Hilary J. Clement.
Hilary carefully paints the glossy texture of scales on the head of a boa constrictor, bringing it into startling detail. There’s a murder mystery unfolding on an audio book in the background. The airy studio, with its aroma of pine frames and hint of turpentine, is well-lit. As she brings her newest creation into the world, she lays out in delicate strokes her life’s dual experience as an artist and as a scientist.

Artists Hilary Clement sits in her studio, barefoot and wearing he painter's apron, in front of original paintings of an elephant and an eagle.Hilary Clement
“I am very careful not to make animals cute or human-like. I like to show them how they actually are in nature,” she says. 

That’s because, as Hilary’s creative brain drives her to capture the spirit of her beasts, her analytical side ensures they’re true to form. It’s that sweet spot between the two where she does her best work.

“I try to find challenging subjects with lots of scales, wrinkles, or feathers. If I’m painting an eye,” which she says is her favorite part, “I am not only thinking of the color and how it will set the mood, but I am also thinking about the tiny striations coming from the pupil in the iris and how they work to open and close it.”

The self-taught painter is an artist, scientist and entrepreneur known in the region for her animal renderings and her distinctive paintings of barns and churches. Like her creatures, Hilary’s landscape pieces do more than depict an old cow barn. She uses a patchwork of subdued colors to capture what time and use has done to the place. And she pulls that feeling beyond the point where the building meets the ground, right into the earth that the barn or church has, in its time, become a part of. The style lends a sense that her subjects add up to more than a collection of old wood and nails.

An original painting depicting a water towerWatertower II, 24" x 24", acrylic

“The layers suggest the different times in history the barn has been in use,” she says. “I see barns all the time that fall down, or are torn down because they are caving in. It’s a way of life that seems to be going extinct, and I think it’s very sad. Painting the barns is a way of reminding people of their rural roots.”

As an artist, Hilary always wanted to follow the path of the abstractionists, painting things in a way that allows the viewer’s mind to wander. She soon knew that wasn’t the kind of story she wanted to tell. “I moved to a more realistic take on my subjects, which feels wonderfully natural to me,” she says, “but I am also aware that if I paint a background and surrounding that is realistic, it tells a clear story. So, I make enough of the painting abstract so that the viewer has to fill it in for themselves.”

A painting of a crow against an off-white background.Corvus, 30" x 30", acrylic
That style makes its way into most of her art. Her piece “Corvus” depicts a crow from the breast up. Its iridescent feathers catch the light, and its eyes, beak and the small downy feathers on its throat show the artist’s attention to the animal’s true anatomy. But it doesn’t perch on a fence wire in some cornfield. Instead, its natural curves are entangled with sharp lines and right angles of silver against an egg-shell backdrop. Of all her pieces, it stands out as an example of Hilary’s duality.

“Corvus” isn’t her favorite piece. At least not today.

Her most cherished work is a rendering of her father and uncle standing side-by-side, one with his arm resting on the other’s shoulders, a grove of Rhododendron behind them. It was a gift to her father when her uncle had passed away. And she says her absolute favorite piece is always the one she’s working on. Why? Because it’s the next step in her growth as an artist.

“I am the best I’ve ever been each time I start a painting because I learned from the last painting. So, I know that it is the best I can do, and it is my favorite.”

Art in the DNA
Hilary was always an artist,but she wasn’t always an artist.
A painting of a dog named petal.Petal, 24" x 24", acrylic
She’s a West Virginia native, born in Montgomery and raised in Fayetteville. She was exposed to the natural world early on. She loved to create art as a kid. She was also a natural at solving puzzles. “I loved reading Sherlock Holmes,” she said. “And it probably affected me more than I’d like to admit.”

Her parents recognized that aptitude for problem-solving, and when Hilary suggested art school, they gently nudged her into a career in science instead, with the promise that she’d be able to create art in her spare time.

“I think my parents were scared to death I would try to be an artist and not get a good job,” she said. 

Hilary followed their advice and enrolled in the biology program at WVU Tech. She took to the field quickly and fell in love with the life of the scientist, though she never let go of that desire to create.

“Probably unwisely, I spent more time in the ceramics studio than in my labs and studying,” Hilary jokes. But she doesn’t regret the time she spent with professors like Bob Simile, a beloved art instructor who passed away in 2012. “He was a great influence on me. I enrolled in his art history class and he suggested I try taking ceramics. He invested a lot of time in my learning all about glazing and using the wheel. He also brought in artists to show their work and introduced me to a world where someone could actually make a living in art.”

Even in her biology studies, Hilary would find opportunities to flex her artistic muscles. “I thrived in my anatomy and physiology classes where we had to diagram different bones and muscles,” she said.

A painting of three vultures.The Wake, 30" x 40", oil

More than one professor realized Hilary’s talent and suggested she take a stab at textbook illustration, but she knew the digital age meant work in the field would be scarce. Even so, she dug into her studies and learned how bodies – human and otherwise – work. She learned how they’re structured and how they move. She also explored the mathematics of nature.

“A bird has an expected ratio of length in the different sections of its wing. If you draw the upper part a certain length, then you can correctly predict the length of the lower portions,” she said. “And gait is also important. If you know how a horse moves, then you will know where its legs should be when it is running. All of that biology really helps me get my paintings correct.”

Hilary parlayed her education into a profession in DNA testing. She graduated in ’97 and landed a job with LabCorp in Southern West Virginia. She felt like she still wasn’t using her degree to the fullest.

“It actually took me a few years working to get the confidence to apply to work in DNA testing,” she said. 
A rendering of the face of an elephant on a foggy, ethereal background.Elephant VII, 24" x 36", acrylic

So, Hilary transferred to the company’s identity testing facility in Burlington, North Carolina in 2001. She specializes in what’s known as human leukocyte antigen testing on human chromosome 6. The results of her work allow for accurate typing and matching of donor and recipient tissue in transplants. When a donor needs new tissue or an organ, the database she’s helping to build quickly finds a match.

After a decade in the lab, Hilary decided to strike out on her own and spend her days focusing on her art. “It was actually a very hard adjustment for me at first,” she said. “I was supervising a staff of 35 in three different departments and I went from being pulled in a lot of different directions to just having one major thing to get done.”

But she took to the work and relied on her corporate experience to keep her business running and to market her art. She also ingrained herself within the arts community. She connected with local artists. She shared her work in the ArtStock studio tour. She participated in shows with Greensboro Beautiful, a non-profit dedicated to maintaining and enhancing the beauty of the region. She even opened a pop-up gallery that helped more than 35 artists share their work with the community. 

The time away from the grind also allowed her to create more and better art –and to jump into other ventures. Hilary’s husband Andrew is a contractor who works for a local non-profit that provides reduced-cost renovations and handicap accessibility upfitting for low-income residents. He’s also not immune to the “feeling” of a home, so when he saw that the historic T. Austin Finch house was on the market, he saw real potential.

The couple purchased the historic house, which was home to nationally recognized industrialist, Thomas Austin Finch. Working in their spare time, the two renovated the building and have since put it into use as a space for weddings and bridal shows. They’ve even outfitted the house to include three studio spaces for artists who want to set up shop.

The historic T. Austin Finch HouseThe Historic T. Austin Finch House

Like Hilary’s barns and churches, though, the project is about more than a simple building.

“We are helping preserve that history and use that building so that it isn’t demolished or forgotten.”

Two halves in harmony
Hilary’s busy. Between painting and running the Finch House, the days stay full to bursting. 

She’s since returned to the lab so the couple can finish renovations. But this time, she’s not in management. “I am able to leave everything there and come home and concentrate on painting, which is working out well for me right now.”

Hilary the scientist loves the lab work and feels the field fits her personality. Hilary the artist is courting a few galleries and has a backlog of commissions that keep her working on what she loves to do.
A colorful painting of a lizard.36" x 36", acrylic

Even in the busiest of days, she says she’s thankful for her experiences. She remembers her time in West Virginia fondly and still has family in the state.

“After marrying someone from New Jersey and living in the south, I can see that growing up in West Virginia is a unique experience and I am just really thankful for my past time there,” she said.

She’s also grateful for her parents’ gentle nudge and her dual professions. She says walking that line taught her how to be strong. That it taught her about what success really means.

“I enjoy challenges and, as I have gotten older, I’ve lost a fear of failure. If you take on something big and fail, you are still somehow successful. You learn, you see where you could have done better and you go tackle something else,” she said. “Use your unique life experiences. Everything I grew up around, every job I’ve had has helped me in some way. Appreciate your experiences and your life and build on that.”

As she hangs up the lab coat and ties on the apron, she gets back to work. She puts the finishing touches on her snake, its brown and copper body half-coiled on a bed of wrinkled gold leaf. She paints into it her days in the lab and her days throwing clay. She paints into it her West Virginia and her North Carolina. She paints into it the story of a young girl with a dream and of a woman with a drive.

She paints into it her life.

Follow her on Instagram to see her works in progress.